Friday, December 11, 2009
book review - The Tenth Man - Graham Greene
If you want an example of what graham Greene is all about and you are not prepared to invest the time and effort to engage with one of his longer books then this slim story will serve the purpose of introducing you to the great man.
What is on display in a relatively short and tight story about a man who has signed away his fortune to save his life and then the facing of the consequences is the characterisation and tone of voice that is there in Greene’s literature.
The tale seems relatively simple with the action kicking off in a prisoner of war camp in occupied France. Lots are drawn with the tenth man facing the shooting squad. A rich lawyer Chavel draws the lot but offers to give all of his money and his large house in the country to anyone who will take his place. This cowardly act is actually taken up by a poor man Janvier who wishes to at least die rich.
After the war Chavel heads back to his house and lives as a handy man under the same roof as Janvier’s sister and mother. They are both waiting for Chavel and are terrorised about it. When an opportunist finally comes calling it throws everything into confusion and the hate that the sister actually thought she felt turn more to forgiveness.
Chavel faces the choice to reveal his true identity or take the opportunity of having someone else take the part of the shadow that has fallen across his and the lives of the mother and sister.
As a reader you might feel you know where the book is going, so many times it feels as if you can predict the next plot development. But what makes it interesting going through the story is the ability of Greene not just to surprise but deliver such believable characters that you are prepared to go through scenes to see the reaction.
He operates with a tight cast, a shadow over hanging the whole piece as the principal character wonders if his secret will be discovered and then an ending which you could not have predicted but is well worth waiting for.
What he really writes about so acutely are human beings and their motivations and emotions. He nails it in a very short space of writing and manages to drop a backdrop that sets a mood. He can do it in the jungles of Africa, a blitzed London and again here in post-war rural France.